DETROIT, MI - MARCH 13: Detroit Pistons celebrates before the game against the Toronto Raptors on March 13, 2024 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Pistons better suited now to be the defense-first team they envisioned

The Pistons are now approaching the team they envisioned as the season began five months ago – with a roster that they would barely recognize from those days. They sat at 6-43 as the trade deadline neared in early February and a four-game Western Conference road trip awaited ahead of the All-Star break. Somehow getting even younger after four trades in 30 hours that overhauled half the roster – seven players remain from the team that began the season – the Pistons are 6-10 since that time.

They wanted to win with defense this season and Monty Williams set vaulting up from the 27th-ranked unit they were last season to middle of the pack as the goal. They’re 13th in defensive rating since that time at 113.0; they were 29th at 120.5 before that.

They’ve won two in a row and three of their last four after Wednesday’s 113-104 win over Toronto. The Raptors nearly became the third team held under 100 points in the last 15 days but a spate of late turnovers – four in the final 1:01 – helped the Raptors to score 10 points in the final 1:13.

Holding a team to 104 points in a season where scoring has soared to a 114.8 average is still an achievement. And when you hold a team to 104 while turning it over a whopping 22 times, that’s a remarkable achievement. Turnovers have been a season-long issue for the Pistons, one the roster turnover hasn’t fully addressed for a simple reason: The guys handling the ball remain the same and they are all young ballhandlers in a league that generally eats the young.

But even there, the backcourt of Cade Cunningham (22), Jaden Ivey (22) and Marcus Sasser (23) has shown they’ve absorbed lessons. If you could quantify turnovers, the Pistons aren’t making as many of the killer variety these days, the ones that lead to easy buckets the other way. A traveling violation or an illegal screen isn’t the same as getting stripped in the paint or firing a cross-court pass into traffic. Over the last seven games, the Pistons have committed 19 or more turnovers three times – but 12 or less four times.

The Pistons gave up savvy scoring and 3-point firepower at the trade deadline, but ended up with a roster better equipped to compete at the defensive end – the area general manager Troy Weaver and Williams consistently assert is the place where the turnaround of the Pistons must be launched.

To that end, the Pistons really won Wednesday’s game at the start of the fourth quarter with a second unit on the floor that included Sasser, newcomers Quentin Grimes and Simone Fontecchio, Stanley Umude and James Wiseman. They didn’t tear it up on offense – they’d scored 14 points in 6:39 when Williams brought back Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren, a 100-point pace for 48 minutes – but they extended a four-point lead to 11 by holding Toronto to seven in that time, a 50-point pace.

Cunningham was about to join them when Sasser hit the second of his consecutive 3-point buckets with 4:26 to play to push the lead to 14, but he told Williams to let Sasser roll.

“Hats off to the second unit tonight,” Stewart said. “They continued to build on the lead until the starters got back on. Sasser was hot, so Cade was a great teammate and told Coach to just let him finish out the game.”

The Pistons won on a night they didn’t shoot very well, 44.3 percent, and gave up 22 possessions via turnover. But they held Toronto to 44.1 percent. They outrebounded them by a dominant 58-37 count and shot 31 free throws to 19 for Toronto, categories that skew toward the more physical teams, and those numbers surely delight both Weaver and Williams.

A physical, defense-first team is where they’re trying to go. Duren played above the crowd from the opening tip and finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds in just 28 minutes. Wiseman, himself a new player since about the time of the trade deadline, added six points, 10 boards and three blocks in 19 minutes. Stewart scored 15 points, hit all three of his 3-point attempts and was cited at halftime by Williams for his stout defense.

“He was the one guy putting his chest on the ball,” Williams said. “Got a blocked shot, stayed in front of the ball, forced tough shots. He just does his job and he’s one of the best in the league. A lot of people talk about guarding one through five; he’s certainly one guy in that category. Defensively, he’s an anchor for us every single night.”

The pieces are emerging. The pieces fit in a way they didn’t before February’s upheaval. Stewart, Duren and Wiseman give the Pistons a trio of young big men who bring a smorgasbord of length, rim protection, physicality, lob dunking power and toughness. Ivey and Ausar Thompson, who missed a second straight game due to illness, provide otherworldly perimeter athleticism and above-the-rim sizzle. Grimes and Fontecchio are grinders who’ll settle in as energetic 3-and-D rocks. Sasser throws off some Vinnie Johnson vibes for the way he comes off the bench and changes the game’s texture. And Cunningham stitches it all together with elite basketball IQ, big-moment aplomb and a star’s aura.

The season got sideways on them in a Murphy’s Law kind of way. Whatever could go wrong – injuries that couldn’t have been timed worse or been more wickedly distributed – did for the first few months. But Williams maintained throughout the depths of their travails that he saw an unbreakable spirit with a team more suited age-wise for the Big Ten than the NBA. The proof is in the pudding. If the Pistons had let hard times defeat them, their recent turnaround would not have gotten off the ground.

“It sounds crazy, but we felt like we gained momentum during the losing streak,” he said. “Because of the way our guys approached every day. Nobody’s listening, but I told people who would listen I’ve never seen anything like it. Our guys came in every day and were ready to compete. Everybody wants to win, but there’s steps to it. You go through those steps to gain that momentum. We’re clear about not skipping steps in this organization and that’s what we want to do through the end of the season.”

It ends a month from today. It’s a month the Pistons intend to milk for every ounce of momentum it can provide to carry into a future worth embracing.